Cape Town Opera in collaboration with the UCT Opera School will debut Pulitzer-prize and Grammy Award winning composer Dominick Argento’ opera Postcard From Morocco in South Africa at the Artscape Theatre on Wednesday, November 19.
PETER TROMP caught up with director ALAN SWERDLOW in the lead up to this momentous occasion.
In recent times we’ve gotten more used to you directing plays. How do you feel about helming an operatic production for CTO?
I’m thrilled, of course. I have a long history of almost directing operas, but wheels have a habit of falling off. Michael Williams has been talking to me for quite a while now about directing for Cape Town Opera – this time we managed to get our calendars to coincide. Oh, and there’s a long history of drama directors tackling opera, to the point that the French have a term for it – “regie opera”. It’s very hot and accepted in Europe and elsewhere now.
What can audiences look forward to with ‘Postcard From Morocco’?
For a start, it’s a South African premiere and that’s always exciting; bringing something unknown to the stage without having to fight any preconceptions or traditions. It’s also an absurdist drama in its own right, and we don’t get to see much in the way of that style on our shores, so there’s a further gain. Then we have all these wonderful emerging talents who are performing in ‘Postcard’, and they are the great voices of the future.
There’s an entire canon of contemporary opera out there that we really need to explore despite the fact that SA audiences tend to be a little conservative and prefer the work they are familiar with, and this is a perfect way in. The score is eclectic and unexpected and very often glorious. We go from Romantic Wagnerian to jazz and the blues very comfortably in a story that is mysterious, off-beat, surprising and often both funny and moving at the same time.
You’re working with performers from the UCT Opera School on the production. What’s it like collaborating with the upcoming generation of talent? What are you teaching them, and what are you learning from these millennials?
It really is a privilege to work with talent of this calibre. There are so many demands on them that they don’t have time to acquire some of the more conventional theatre skills, so I think I’m helping with that. Then again, it’s not just the passing on of history and tradition. I’m encouraging them to explore and create and experiment on their own terms and not sit back and wait for instructions, to see their roles in relation to a whole and not in isolation. What I’m learning from them is immense in terms of their approach and commitment to an art form that some narrow individuals might see as unrelated to the here and now. It’s quite wonderful how immediate and of the moment they see their creativity.
Tell us about your love of opera. When did it originate, and what are some of your favourite works, and artists?
When I was a student at UCT Drama School, we were expected to see everything that could be construed as performance, so it wasn’t just plays we were viewing. I went, a little unwillingly I admit, to some CAPAB opera productions and just got hooked. It stopped being a Due Performance diligence for exams and became an absolute pleasure, which I’ve pursued ever since.
I particularly love the Mozart canon for the wit and ingenuity and intricacy (although ‘Dove sono’ from Figaro can have me drizzling like a schoolgirl); and I’m not ashamed to admit that I can wallow in Puccini, but I’m sold totally on all the Benjamin Britten operas, which we hardly ever see here sadly.
They’re my absolute favourites. I’m no Wagnerian though, which probably puts me in the corner with a Dunce cap on my head, but I can happily justify my position if you have an hour or three to spare.
Why do you think so many people remain so enthused about opera, when there’s so much other media to occupy their time with?
Well, I think it’s because of the totality of the experience. You’re engaged intellectually and emotionally and your senses come into play: the aural, the visual. As the slogan had it some years back, “Murder, Romance, Laughter, Mayhem – all to some of your favourite tunes”.
What is your response to people who think that opera is purely for high art snobs and rich and upwardly mobile posers?
I think it’s unfortunate that there is a degree of snobbery and posturing associated with opera, but I truly think it’s dying out. I say that those who think the thoughts you suggest have bought into a cliché that is fading away and haven’t allowed themselves to experience opera for what it is, and instead they allow others to dictate what their response should be.
It gives me the biggest kick to go to the ENO in London and see teens and people in their early twenties, dressed in denim and leather jackets, with working class accents, discussing the minutiae of the performance at interval. They’ve taken ownership of something that speaks to them without any judgmental intermediaries, and that’s wonderful. Remember that opera was a populist entertainment once it was wrested out of the hands of the aristocracy. Unfortunately, opera tends to be expensive – hey, you’ll pay £500 for a seat in the stalls at Covent Garden, which is madness, but fortunately, it’s still affordable here. The arts, all arts need subsidies to make them accessible to all.
* Book at Computicket.
CTO will be running a “Eat In At The Opera For R200” promotion during the run of ‘Postcard From Morocco’. R200 includes your Opera ticket, a Moroccan inspired dinner (a choice of Meat/Chicken or Vegetarian) and a glass of wine sponsored by Jordan wines.
Visit www.capetownopera.co.za for more information.